The Nimble Knife

One beautiful fall day a few years back, I packed up my paint box, canvas, a fresh thermos of coffee and some homemade snacks and set off on an hour-long hike to a remote location to paint. As I was setting up my easel and admiring the scene before me, I discovered that I’d forgotten all my brushes. Should I pack it up and come back another day? I asked myself. No, I decided. I did have my trusty painting knives, so I endeavored to go ahead and fill my 18×24 canvas as best I could. It seemed very limiting at the time, but in the end I thought the painting turned out pretty well. To my surprise, it was the first painting to sell in the new season at my gallery.

When it comes to art, exploring and experimenting are paramount to discovery and learning. There are rules to learn by, but never assume they’re the only way. The painting knife is a great tool for direct application of pigment with fresh results. Knife work builds up fresh color, dramatizes texture and also creates sharp edges. It’s excellent for applying a smooth spread of color over an underlay of brushwork. The combination can be a wonderful balance of texture and color saturation.

There are so many knives for the choosing, from tiny detail blades up to mammoth bricklaying trowels. I like to try them all but usually find myself returning to my Grumbacher No. 877-22, a 3-inch long and narrow knife, for large applications and a Langnickel P12 small triangular knife for more detailed work. I generally find the flat knives that have no bend to the handle to be less flexible, making it hard to achieve the right angle for properly laying down paint.

By experimenting with different styles and sizes, you can find your own favorites to complement your brushwork and elevate the end result to a higher plane of satisfaction.

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